Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Pricing Art

Constant reader crionna yesterday raised the issue of how expensive a sculpture was and how it wasn't worth that much to him. That got me to thinking about how art is priced.

Actually I think about it all the time. Barely a day goes by in the gallery when the topic doesn't come up, and working with emerging artists, it comes up in contexts that require a bit of patience and diplomacy, because, well, crionna nailed the issue: art is mostly priced according to what someone is willing to pay for it.

But first, for context, consider the anecdote of the famous French artist who is recognized by the owner of the cafe he stops into. The owner is delighted by the visit and promises to offer the artist the very best of his kitchen and bar. "And I would be honored if, while I prepare your meal, you would be so kind as to make a drawing I could hang in my cafe." The artist, turning over his paper place mat, agrees and begins to draw the flower in the vase before him. Later the owner returns with a feast and is thrilled to behold a stunning reproduction of the table decoration. "Mon Dieu!" exclaims the owner. "That's exquisite." The artist nods and states matter of factly, "That will be 5,000 Francs [it's an old anecdote]." "What!" cries the owner, stepping back and putting the drawing down. "But...but...how can you charge 5,000 Francs? It only took you 10 minutes to make that drawing." "No, my good man," replied the artist. "It's taken me my entire life to be able to make that drawing."

It's this reality for artists, (i.e., that it's taken them years of study and very expensive schools to get to the point where they're ready to exhibit their work) combined with knowing how much other artists are getting for similar work (and, often, other artists they're convinced are inferior), that leads many emerging artists to assume their prices should be comparable.

What younger artists sometimes don't recognize (or don't want to, perhaps) is that the art market is first and foremost a market, and prices are determined by demand. If collectors are lining up to purchase a piece by an artist, his/her prices go up. If not, they don't. Of course, there are thresholds and size considerations (yes, paintings, for example, by unknown artists are often priced by the foot), but in general it's governed by the laws of supply and demand.

Paradoxically perhaps, one of the most common ways to increase demand for the work of an emerging artist is to price the work very attractively at first, thereby getting it into the collections of people who will exhibit it in their homes, talk it up, and do much of the PR for the artist themselves. Getting some younger artists to agree to this is challenging, but others seem to get it instinctively and insist their prices remain low until they have a waiting list. After that, the rise is much faster.

Some patient folks have amassed incredible collections by seeking out these underpriced works by good young artists (think the Ganz's). It takes a good deal of time and a good eye, but the reward is twofold: having a top notch collection and having it appreciate well beyond anything you could have afforded otherwise. Just food for thought.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That makes sense. But what if a dealer is overzealous and begins to increase prices without consulting the artist? You can't go back, can you?

6/21/2005 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

no you can't go back, and what you describe is a mistake dealers should avoid.

It's usually not the dealers who make that mistake. It can be, but usually the secondary market will impact this more than anything else.

6/21/2005 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous crionna said...

"It's taken me my entire life to be able to make that drawing."

Funny, I've heard that same story from every plumber who's ever twisted the right nut to stop a leak, computer geek who punched in the right code to make a printer work, electrician who made the right connection to bring light to a home etc. etc. All of whom did so in the space of 5 minutes. ;)

6/21/2005 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If you've had the novice plumber, technician, or electrician learn at your expense, though, you're happy to pay the more experienced professional's prices, no?

6/21/2005 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Hans said...

I think the excuse for working a lifetime is no excuse, failed. Some make it quick and fast, like Kippenberger, some die young, like Michel Majerus, some work a liftime like a lot of artists. My favorite of those is Balthus.
Thus the market makes it, you are very right- the best example is Van Gogh.
But why the Market values some art high, some other not ? I think it's in the quality of art itself, as no critic can make bad art into good art in the end.
I just posted on http://newimages.blogspot.com an idea on another, but a familiar issue: How to sell Digital Art ?
What do you think ?

Best regards,


6/21/2005 04:56:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

you're happy to pay the more experienced professional's prices, no?

Surely. But I think that here is where another old salesman's term comes into play, and is, in fact, stymied a bit in the art world.

That term is "Where there's mystery, there is margin." Hence the high cost of software, the increasing cost of maintaining our ever more computerized autos, the millions paid to Indian outsourcers.

Art is perhaps the most mysterious of all, because most of us realize that we are so terrifically bad at it. A writer whose name I've long forgotten once said, "A blank sheet of paper is God's way of reminding us that it's not quite so easy to be God.". So too a blank canvas or large hunk of stone.

Ah, but art has just that one little problem, the fact that it does not provide drip-free water, a printed report or light and therefore cannot be proven to be universally good (or bad, in a flooded house kinda way). So, what is mysterious to some (and therefore valuable) is crap to others. Alas for Edward ;)

6/21/2005 08:55:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

As a new person in art world, I think the prices are too high. It's very rare when I am in love with some works and dont mind to have it, but unfortunally the price scares me away.
And if an artist is well known, forget about it :)

6/22/2005 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What are you talking about bambino?

All you have to do is be your charming self and you'll continue to get art as presents. ;-)

6/22/2005 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Do you know how long it will take for me to work for Lazzarini or kitty paintings?

6/22/2005 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Longer for the Lazzarini than the kitty paintings, that's for sure.

But if you start being really nice to Robert now, you never know! ;)

6/22/2005 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for this entry. very good read. i had to mention your blog and the gallery on my blog tonite. glad to have discovered you.


6/23/2005 01:19:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

thanks for the kind words and the mention anonymous...very cool blog you got there. And you're right about Andy Yoder, undoubtedly one of the nicest artists out there. He's got a new solo show coming up soon that we're really excited about!

6/23/2005 07:55:00 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Great post. There was a similar thread I participated in at the blog Anaba. Read it here: http://anaba.blogspot.com/2005/06/more-thoughts-on-dumas-saltz-art.html

6/23/2005 09:38:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

I agree with you guys about Andy Yoder, one of the nice, polite and lovely artist I've met so far.

6/23/2005 09:57:00 AM  
Anonymous markdixon.ca said...

I agree that young artists should price their work modestly. At the same time I am annoyed with the complaint of high prices (I am not referring to big time artists here) that some artists ask. For example, an mid-career painter that asks 5 000 for a significant work is not asking that much. Consider that the artist gets a fraction of that price (the other goes to the gallery) and that he or she has to pay for materials, studio rent, etc. Considering this, the artist probably makes about 2000 to 2500 for the work sold. If he or she sells 10 significant works a year (which is a lot) then they make about 20 000 a year. Hardly a big time salary.

6/23/2005 10:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Artists selling work at 5000 (which is already a low price in the art market) are offending to craft artists who can do wonderful stuff and sell on the street for 30 bucks. The sort of stuff people used to do in the day while other were picking fruits, meeting later on in public markets.

When everybody puts their prices on the high, that affects the whole of society. The plumber can now say his stuff is art and ask 5000.

Life becomes alienating.

That is why I feel forced to embrace the artists of tomorrow who will attempt to create "unsellable" art
(digital reproduction?) because
we need them more than ever in
remembering us the time when we were simply painting on caves, actually trying to communicate something.

The "20 000-dollars-per-year artist" can't buy a 5000 painting. Artists are often the greatest loosers in the art market: they get the least money, especially when their art is re-auctioned, to a point when I don't understand the lucrative appeal for those wishing to make money out of it.

To be more pragmatic about this issue, yes, demand should create the price, but that demand
is very well manipulated, and the most interesting art is not always the one that sells the most.

Also, people forgot too easily that they can buy their own "Fountain", misunderstanding one of the most important aspect of conceptual art, being that you can often reproduce the art for yourself.

Elsewhere, artists sell 6 copies of a bronze sculpture at a steep price when they can do 2000 and sell them for much less.

They "don't respond to the demand".

Why sell 3 copies of a video at 10 000 when you can reproduce a 1000 copies at 100 ?

Why are artists trying to do ?

Create that special rare aura around their art where it shouldn't be ?

If I was the resto proprietaire I would've reply to the flower painter: "This is not art, mister, this is craft. You are not inventing anything but painting your interpretation of the same
goddam age-old flower. If I pretend that this BAR that you see behind you IS a flower: that's already more interesting than your drawing. So..eitheir you accept our little exchange or you leave now and stop blaspheming on the sake of creativity".

Cedric Caspesyan

7/18/2005 12:21:00 AM  

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